Kandyan dance is a true reflection of Sri Lanka’s colourful and diverse cultural ethos
A trip to Sri Lanka is incomplete without witnessing the island nation’s most spectacular cultural offering – the Kandyan dance.
This iconic performing art that is a major attraction at the country’s annual Esala Perahera festival, is a stunning blend of dance, music, singing, story-telling and drama.
Performed exclusively to a variety of percussion beats, which also include the Sri Lankan classic drum Geta Beraya and cymbals Thalampota, the art form is an ensemble act comprising five distinct genres of dance, namely the Naiyandi, Pantheru, Udekki, Ves and Vannam.
As the flamboyantly attired Kandyan dancers take a dramatic entry amidst a procession of decorated elephants, palanquins, drummers and trumpeters, you are left baffled at the ease with which they break into sudden bursts of swirls, kicks, jumps, backflips etc… while performing the stylised movements and gestures that Kandyan dance is made of.
Their colourful ensemble, marked by a tall metal headgear and heavily beaded ornaments, add to the unique spectacle that is created in front of your eyes.
Then and now
Native to Sri Lanka’s centrally located Kandy city, the Kandyan dance originated as a dance ritual (known as the Kohomba kankariya) that was performed to appease the Kohomba deity. Traditionally, the dance was performed solely by a group of four-five men. The fascination of the Kandyan kings for this art form resulted in its popularity between the 16-19th centuries. In fact, Kandyan dancers came to be recognised as a separate clan under the Kandyan feudal system.
With changing times, women too joined the men and started performing. In the 1970s, artist and Kandyan dancer, Chitrasena modified this art form for theatre and infused it in many of his stage ballets. He lent a modern touch to the art form, which helped it appeal to the present day audience.
The most popular version
Among the five Kandyan dance styles, Vannam (recitation) is an expressive art form and a visual treat enacted by one or two dancers. There are 18 Vannams in total and they mostly portray animals, history, legends etc. The animal-inspired Vannam involves singing songs that describe the virtues of different animals and the dancers simultaneously enacting those animals and their behaviour. Cobra (Naaga), peacock (Mayura), monkey (Hanuma) and elephant (Gajaga Vannama) are some depictions that are well-admired.
Finery and ornaments
The eye-catching costumes of Kandyan dancers are modest but accessorised heavily with chunky ornaments. The men tie a white loincloth in shape of trousers and adorn them with a waist belt. On their chest they only wear decorative beaded net. Apart from hollow anklets that rattle they also wear necklaces, huge earpieces and epaulets. But what really makes them stand out are their elaborate crown-like shining headpieces. The women’s attire is primarily inspired from the costumes donned by the men and are equally attractive.
Words: Pooja Kulkarni